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Len Ziehm On Golf

Can Northwestern make another run at the NCAA women’s title?

Last year the Northwestern women’s team created a Cinderella story. Coach Emily Fletcher’s team, with only one senior, marched all the way to the championship match at the NCAA finals at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove.

A year later, Fletcher says, “we’ll try to do it again.’’

The Wildcats made the 24-team field for this year’s NCAA finals, which tee off on Friday at Karsten Creek in Stillwater, Okla. Over the course of the season, though, the team hasn’t performed at the level that might be expected of a team with four returning players.

“We’ve struggled a little,’’ admitted Fletcher. `Not everybody has played at the same level. Overall we were a little inconsistent. It’s been a challenge living up to expectations.’’

Most notable that applies to Hannah Kim, a stalwart on the NCAA runner-up team that dropped the title match against Arizona State.

“She’s had a slightly off year after being a trailblazer for us her first three years,’’ said Fletcher. This year’s team barely squeaked into the finals, and Kim was a key reason the Wildcats made it at all.

NU got off to a slow start in last week’s 54-hole regional tournament at University Ridge in Madison, Wis. The Wildcats needed to finish in the top six teams to make the finals, and they stood ninth after the first round. They posted the second-best round of the day in Round 2 to climb into a tie for sixth with Illinois and Ohio State, however, and that set the stage for a tension-packed final round in bad weather conditions.

Kim was 4-over-par for her first nine holes on the front nine but was 2-under on what could have been her last nine as a college player, and that helped NU nab the coveted No. 6 spot. Kim wasn’t the big gun in the gutty team effort, but her finish was a huge help.

The key player was sophomore Brooke Riley. She wasn’t on the NCAA runner-up team as a freshman but got her chance after Kacie Komoto graduated. Komoto turned pro, tried unsuccessfully to qualify for the Japan tour and will try to make it on the LPGA’s Symetra circuit this summer.

Riley has already made it at the collegiate level. She made eight birdies and shot a 6-under-par 66 in the heat of the regional’s third round. That was the second-best postseason round in the history of the NU program and her three-day total of 7-under 209 put Riley in a tie for fourth individually.

“She was tremendous for us,’’ said Fletcher. “I couldn’t be more happy for her. She pretty much kept us in it, but it was a collective effort.’’

Joining Riley and Kim on NU’s sixth straight NCAA finalist team were senior Sarah Cho and juniors Stephanie Lau and Janet Mao. They’ll start the competition at Karsten Creek, Oklahoma State’s home course, on Friday. All the teams will compete over 54 holes of stroke play, then there’ll be another round of stroke play for the top 15 teams.

After the 72 holes of stroke play are over the top eight teams will go to match play to determine the champion. The Golf Channel will cover the last three days of the tournament, which concludes on May 23.

Now it’s the men’s turn

The women’s teams from Northwestern and Illinois battled to the wire in their regional. Now the men are doing the same on Ohio State’s Scarlet Course. That regional ends today (WEDNESDAY) with the top five teams going to the NCAA men’s finals, which take over the Karsten Creek course after the women’s tournament is over.

Illinois has qualified for the match play portion in seven of the last eight NCAA finals but never won it all – a fact not lost on two-time Big Ten individual champion Nick Hardy of Northbrook who turns pro at the Rust-Oleum Championship at Ivanhoe Club as soon as his collegiate career is done.

“I’m really excited, ‘’ said Hardy. “Finishing with my team should really be fun. We’re playing well at the right time.’’

While the Illinois men’s program has won eight of the last nine Big Ten titles including the last four in a row the NU men are consistent contenders as well. They have qualified for NCAA regional play nine times in the last 10 years.

Kemper is good to Chaussard

Garrett Chaussard, a four-year letterman for the Illini prior to his graduation in 2005, won his first major Illinois PGA title at Kemper Lakes last week. He took the 67th IPGA Match Play crown, beating frequent practice partner Chris Green of Glen View Club 3 and 2 in the final.

“Playing 36 holes three days in a row, it was a relief to get it over with and I’m glad I survived,’’ said Chaussard, the director of instruction at Skokie Country Club in Glencoe after holding similar jobs at Cog Hill and Chicago Highlands.

Unlike previous IPGA Match Plays, the tournament shared the course with workers preparing the Kildeer layout for next month’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.

“There was constant activity out there,’’ said Chaussard. “They’re definitely doing some bunker work. Like all our courses they’re coming out of a real late spring, but that course is in really great shape.’’